Revisiting the Iroquois Creation Story in 2020

Atia Newman

Five years after it’s first launch, the Iroquois Creation Story (or ICS for short) is enjoying a mini-revival in 2020. With the sparking of a brand-new (old) conversation about diversity in animation and appropriate cultural representation, this project is being used as a prime example of how to respectfully represent the ideology of a nation.

Having recently given a talk on the topic of cultural appropriation, I discovered how, the more terms like “representation” and “appropriation” are bandied about, the less clear they seem to become.

Yet, in the creation of the Iroquois Creation Story we can see how possible it is to bring forward the beliefs and values of a culture without subverting it in the name of “artistic license” or stylization. Animation, like any other field of art, is merely a tool for communication and can adapt to represent any ideology.

Firstly, this film was first imagined and conceived by G. Peter Jemison, Native American artist and representative of the Seneca Nation of Indians and the manager of the Ganondagan State Historic Site. A prolific artist himself, he contributed heavily to the concept art that went into the preparation and design of this film.

As the Director of Animation (and a non-American), I could not rely on my previous stereotypical knowledge of Native American culture to design this film. It took some conscious education and examination for our creative team to deprogram ourselves from pop-culture stereoptypes. It could be so easy to justify arbitrary choices as the “rules of animation” or the “rules of character design”, but the goal of this film was to get it right, not make it easy.

So we relied heavily on the art and feedback of G. Peter Jemison, and did our best to translate the core essence of his imagery into the animated medium. Using the work of the very talented New York City-based concept artist Patricia Raubo, we built the cast of characters that would appear in this story.

Left: Original art by G. Peter Jemison. Right: Concept art for ICS by Patricia Raubo

Every character and each significant prop in this story was researched to truly understand its place in the film. Because we understood that even though the casual viewer would very likely miss such details, our core audience, the Iroquois Nation, would notice and hopefully, appreciate them.

Reference Images and Iroquois Creation Story Moodboard. All artwork by G. Peter Jemison.

With the script inspired by Chief John Arthur Gibson’s publication of the Iroquois Creation myth and the concept art in such fine state, one might expect that our adherence to representation was enough. But once you’re on the road to creation, it’s tough to stop.

All of the actors cast in this film were native Haudenosaunee speakers, so as to ensure cohesiveness in the characters, and the film was scored by award-winning composer Brent Michael Davids (Stockbridge Munsee).

Then, using the recorded dialogue we were given, our animators were directed to represent their best interpretations of their characters. These animations were then re-edited to match mannerisms and styles across characters and sections, so that each character could be believable as the owner of their voice.

This was the most significant part of my job. I was already rigging all of the characters to be animated in the film, but as the animated sections started filtering back to me, I ended up being the shadow-animator, cleaning up and refining the gestural quality of the characters.

This may sound confusing to non-animators, because why on earth would it be necessary to change or clean up someone else’s movements? But like in any collaborative process, the most difficult thing to do is create cohesion, and acting in animation is a big area of concern. Imagine asking Al Pacino to narrate one line of a story, and then asking Bruce Willis to step in for the next one. They can do their best, but their personalities can’t help but shine through. So, in order to tame this Pacino-Willis divide, I stepped in as the unifying force to ensure each character maintained continuity across sections.

Thus, when the film entered its final stages of completion, even the seemingly disparate parts came together because we had stayed faithful in color scheme and design and held each medium of animation to that standard.

Before I finish, I’ll leave you with one final thought: every film is different, and it may be impossible to duplicate the circumstance and resources that we were able to pull together for this story. But the one area that will always deserve extra time when creating a story from another culture, is your own mindset. By throwing out our “rules”, we created possibilities. By opening our development process to the culture we aimed to represent, we created authenticity.

At the end of the day, the authenticity is what drove this production and allowed it to be completed successfully.

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